Aid Begins to Reach Myanmar Cyclone Survivors

BANGKOK, Thailand, May 13, 2008 (ENS) – Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej of Thailand will travel to Myanmar Wednesday to coordinate assistance between the international communities and Myanmar, which was hit by the deadly Cyclone Nargis on May 2 and 3.

Winds up to 200 kph destroyed 95 percent of the homes and businesses in the Irrawaddy delta region. The country’s main city and former capital, Yangon also suffered major damage.

Thai Prime Minister Samak
Sundaravej (Photo
courtesy Office of the
Prime Minister)

Following a diplomatic meeting with Myanmar officials Monday, Prime Minister Samak explained that after its initial reluctance to accept aid, particularly from Western countries, the Myanmar government has begun to cooperate and now is willing to receive assistance from every country.

The toll of people killed, missing, or affected by the cyclone remains difficult to assess, with the numbers increasing daily. Myanmar officials estimate the death toll at 31,938, with another 29,770 missing. United Nations officials put the toll between 62,000 and 100,000. The UN also said about two million people may be displaced.

Today, the Secretariat of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN, is assembling an Emergency Rapid Assessment Team to assess the critical needs of the survivors. Made up of experts in coordination and liaison, water and sanitation, health, logistics and food, the team will be mobilized within 48 hours in coordination with the ASEAN Committee on Disaster Management and the government of Myanmar.

The World Health Organization, WHO, has flown in emergency medical supplies that are being used to assist tens of thousands of people and is monitoring for communicable disease outbreaks. WHO is leading a multi-agency effort of more than 50 people representing 22 agencies to respond to the health impacts of the Myanmar emergency. In cooperation with the Myanmar Ministry of Health, WHO will establish an early warning system to forecast disease outbreaks.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs issued an appeal on May 9 for US$200 million to enable international partners – 10 United Nations organizations and nine nongovernmental organizations – to support the government of Myanmar in addressing the needs of cyclone survivors.

The UN Humanitarian Country Team says the critical needs to be covered by the appeal are plastic sheeting, water purification materials, water receptacles, cooking sets, mosquito nets, emergency health kits, food and fuel. The appeal is intended to meet the needs of more than 1.5 million people affected by the cyclone for at least three months.

To date, only US$6 million has been raised to meet this appeal.

Map of Myanmar and neighboring countries.
(Map courtesy UN World Food Programme)

The worst-affected areas are considered Myanmar’s food bowl, producing much of the country’s staple foods of rice and fish, and the overall food security situation in Myanmar is seriously threatened, says the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, FAO.

The destruction of Myanmar’s food basket may sharply decrease national rice production and impair access to food, the FAO says, adding that the cyclone damage could worsen the current global rice production outlook. The cyclone struck when paddy farmers were harvesting their dry season crop – about 20 percent of annual production.

Entire rice growing areas are flooded and many roads and bridges are impassable. Several rice warehouses and stocks were destroyed. Rice prices in Yangon have already surged by nearly 50 percent.

The UN World Food Programme has now dispatched enough food to reach 74,000 people with a first ration of either high-energy biscuits and rice.

By Monday, WFP had distributed enough rice for a two-week ration to 5,400 people in 48 temporary shelters in Labutta. Other distributions continue at locations throughout the affected areas.

Myanmar women and children receive
food aid from the UN World Food
Programme. (Photo by Anna
Wang courtesy WFP)

With 10 Red Cross flights carrying emergency relief supplies already landed and a further seven set to land before Friday, aid is beginning to reach the survivors.

Today, a truck carrying four tonnes of relief supplies from the International Committee of the Red Cross, ICRC, reached the Irrawaddy Delta. Basic foods, blankets, clothing, essential drugs and soap were distributed at three detention sites – two labor camps and a facility for women – identified by the Ministry of Home Affairs as being in urgent need of assistance.

ICRC personnel accompanied Myanmar’s director-general of prisons and members of his staff, including a doctor, to the three sites.

“This is an extremely welcome development,” said the head of the ICRC’s delegation in Yangon, Pierre-André Conod. “This gave us the chance to meet some of the immediate needs of the people detained in these facilities, and to see, first hand, the scale of damage done by the cyclone, enabling us to get a better idea of what kind of help is needed.”

Distributions of aid in at least eight other prisons and labor camps, involving the additional challenge of moving supplies by boat, are scheduled to take place over the next two days.

The first of several flights carrying U.S. relief supplies reached Myanmar Monday. USAID Administrator Henrietta Fore and Admiral Timothy Keating, Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, have just returned to Thailand from delivering bottled water, blankets, and insecticide-treated bed nets to benefit as many as 30,000 people. Two additional humanitarian assistance flights are planned for Tuesday.

USAID Administrator Henrietta Fore is
greeted by a Myanmar official at
the Yangon International airport
Monday. She delivered the first
shipment of U.S. relief supplies.
(Photo courtesy USAID)

Fore announced that the United States is prepared to provide an additional $13 million in food and logistical assistance to the UN World Food Programme for relief operations in Myanmar, which she calls by its previous name, Burma. This would bring total U.S. government monetary assistance made available to date to $16.25 million.

Part of this contribution will include 1,000 tons of food from the USAID warehouse in Djibouti. The United States is also prepared to provide $1 million, as part of this new assistance, to support logistics and coordination services for all international humanitarian aid agencies operating in the region.

The government of Myanmar was initially resistant to accepting U.S. relief suppies in view of the political differences between the two governments.

On May 6, four days after the cyclone struck, President George W. Bush signed a bill awarding a Congressional Gold Medal to Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy activist and 1991 Nobel Peace Laureate, who has been kept under house arrest for years by the Myanmar military regime.

President Bush said, “So our message is to the military rulers: let the United States come to help you, help the people. Our hearts go out to the people of Burma. We want to help them deal with this terrible disaster. At the same time, of course, we want them to live in a free society.”

The USS Essex Expeditionary Strike Group arrived in international waters off Myanmar today ready to assist if allowed by Myanmar authorities. The group includes USS Essex, USS Juneau and USS Harpers Ferry, and is equipped with 23 helicopters, three landing craft air cushions, two landing craft units, and 1,800 Marines.

These ships and personnel were in the region for Cobra Gold 2008, an annual U.S.-Thai humanitarian and civil assistance exercise scheduled for May 8, when Cyclone Nargis hit May 2.

Woman surveys the devastation done by
Cyclone Nargis. (Photo by Eddie
Gerald courtesy WFP)

Nonprofit aid organizations already are working in the field to meet the urgent needs of survivors. The aid deliveries began to move after the government permitted access to those in need and nonprofits are reporting that they have complete control of the supply and distribution of their aid supplies.

Aid is arriving from the Disasters Emergency Committee, DEC, which coordinates the UK’s fundraising response for overseas emergencies.

DEC agencies, including Merlin, Save the Children, Red Cross, CARE International and World Vision have now reached around 300,000 people with vital supplies, and are asking for funds to continue this life saving work.

DEC Chief Executive Brendan Gormley said, “As aid channels are established, it is even more important that the funds are available to continue the flow of emergency relief supplies. Thousands in Burma are in desperate need of water, food and medical supplies. Please give to the DEC Appeal so we can meet the challenge.”

Steve Goudswaard, World Vision’s cyclone response manager, said, “We are now getting relief supplies into the delta area where there is staggering need. If we can maintain the access to survivors and increase our supplies we will be able to reach almost half a million people.”

Igor Dmitryuk, head of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent logistics unit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, said, “These flights only represent the very beginning of what will be a massive logistical operation. We are working around the clock to identify other avenues into the country, but we are beginning to feel a rhythm.”

At present, the government of Myanmar is considering opening its common border in the Thai district of Mae Sot, about 400 kilometers from Yangon, to accept heavy cargos of aid supplies by road. They may also open Yangon’s Tiwa Seaport as it will be another channel to deliver relief aid, particularly construction equipment.

The Myanmar government thanked the government and Royal Family of Thailand and also thanks PTT Public Company Limited, a Thai state-owned oil and gas company, for donating 480,000 liters of diesel fuel, which will reach Myanmar on Wednesday.

The government of Myanmar also requires 100 satellite phones which the Prime Minister of Thailand will ask for from the United States.

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